St Trinian's cartoonist Ronald Searle dies


David Sillito looks back at Ronald Searle's career. Courtesy of the estate of the artist and the Sayle Literary Agency.

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British cartoonist Ronald Searle, best known for creating the fictional girls' school St Trinian's, has died aged 91.

His daughter Kate Searle said in a statement that he "passed away peacefully in his sleep" in a hospital in France.

Searle's spindly cartoons of the naughty schoolgirls first appeared in 1941, before the idea was adapted for film.

The first movie version, The Belles of St Trinian's, was released in 1954.

Joyce Grenfell and George Cole starred in the film, along with Alastair Sim, who appeared in drag as headmistress Millicent Fritton.

Searle also provided illustrations the Molesworth series, written by Geoffrey Willans.

The gothic, line-drawn cartoons breathed life into the gruesome pupils of St Custard's school, in particular the outspoken, but functionally-illiterate Nigel Molesworth "the goriller of 3B".

Searle's work regularly appeared in magazines and newspapers, including Punch and The New Yorker.

'Unabashed ambition'

Aside from his schoolday stories, he was a savage satirist, and some of his darker material was informed by his time as a prisoner of war during World War II.

St Trinian's book cover. Courtesy of Penguin Classics. The St Trinian's girls first appeared in 1941

There, he worked on the infamous "Railway of Death" - a Japanese project to create a rail link between Thailand and Burma, the construction of which led to the death of more than 100,000 labourers, including 16,000 Allied prisoners.

Some of the work he created whilst being held captive is displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe paid tribute to Searle, whom he described as his "hero".

He said: "He was clever and he was funny and he could draw. A lot of cartoonists come up with an idea first but Ronald could really draw."

However, he added that Searle's most famous creations were a "millstone around his neck".

He told the BBC: "He created St Trinian's, which we all loved, and he despised it because he couldn't get away from it and of course he did many, many other things."

Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell said Searle's work stood out for its "genuine wit, intelligence and unabashed ambition".

Anita O'Brien, curator at the Cartoon Museum, said Searle was "absolutely unique".

She added: "He really was one of the most important cartoonists, not just in Britain, but in the rest of the world.

"Many people were influenced by his work. He did so many things, he was so versatile, so talented, so prolific. He will be incredibly missed and there was no one else like him."

Chris Beetles, who held several exhibitions of Searle's work at his gallery, said: "He had become the yardstick by which all those professionals in his trade judged themselves, and his witty draughtsmanship was the standard to which they aspired.

"Over my 40-year collecting and art dealing lifetime, I have never encountered a cartoonist with his consistency of drawing ability, and such an inventive range of humour from burlesque to surrealism."

'Comic anarchism'

Across his career, Searle won a number of awards, including prizes from America's National Cartoonists' Society and France's prestigious Legion d'Honneur in 2007.

Ronald Searle visited an art class in a girls school in 1950 Ronald Searle continued to draw during his time as a prisoner of war

But St Trinian's was his most enduring work - spawning five films between 1954 and 1980.

After a 27-year hiatus, the series was revived in 2007, with Rupert Everett in the headmistress role.

The movie also starred Talulah Riley, Jodie Whittaker and Gemma Arterton, making her film debut.

A sequel, St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold, was released two years later.

Simon Winder, from Penguin the company that published St Trinian's said: "We are all extremely sad to hear of Ronald's death. He was a marvellous, remarkable man and a great artist.

"I can think of nobody who did more to ridicule and undermine 1950s Britain and St Trinian's and Molesworth will endure forever as masterpieces of comic anarchism."

A full statement from Searle's family read as follows: "Ronald William Fordham Searle, born 3 March 1920, passed away peacefully in his sleep, after a short illness, with his children, Kate and John, and his grandson, Daniel, beside him, on 30 December 2011 in Draguignan, France.

"He requested a private cremation with no fuss and no flowers."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    While writing to Ronald Searle this morning to say his Searle at 90 is brilliant, I heard news of his death. Heartening to know that a person who has experienced the worst of human behaviour demonstrates continuing humanity - and an engaging and wicked humour. His great Le Monde satirical art continued until lately. I knew him through Alexander Technique and treasure his letters, of which no more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Chiz and Double Chiz

    RIP Molesworth
    The japanese POW camp/British prisoners drawings were also iconic

    Comedy will now be Cave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Big influence on me and so many others, so often imitated but no-one ever came close, nor will they. RIP Ronald Searle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Ronald Searle was a GEENIUS as any fule kno and winner of the mrs joyful prize for raffia work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    My wife is fortunate enough to have a number of Ronalds' original drawings. Their powerful use of line, vitality and character are a joy to behold. Truly a great artist and a bastion of the virtues of draughtsmanship who will be greatly missed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I remember 'Down with Skool' and the Oddbins brochures well. His anarchic humour will be sadly missed. Good luck to you, where ever you are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Superb illustrator. Thought i detected his hand in the musical version of Scrooge with Albert Finney over Christmas. A really unique style which is instantly recognisable and striking. A sad loss. I hope the BBC might extend this piece to a fuller appreciation of his work - it is richly deserved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    As usual the BBC miss the mark, and mis-judge public sentiment by a country mile. A man who offered so much more than St Trinians.

    Come on BBC, lets have a proper tribute.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I remember Ronald Searle's wonderful drawings of Molesworth in my well-thumbed copy of 'Down With Skool!', obtained from my school book club for the princely sum of about 25p many years ago. The creativity and wit in his art is, for me, unparalleled and I was delighted when my local bookstore decorated the walls of their cafe with his work.

    Ronald, no chiz; you'll be missed, as any fule kno.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    In addition to my post below, here's the link to my tribute to Ronald:

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Chiz chiz he woz grate as any fule kno

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Ronald was my hero for as long as I can think back. In 2009 I met him and Monica, together with my friend Matt Jones from the R Searle Tribute blog. People say that you shouldn't meet your heroes. I'm glad I did. Ronald was a remarkable man; witty intelligent passionate and kind. I animated this 2010: CLICK

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    RIP Ronald

    He was kind enough a few years back to write a personal note in his book of his POW drawings for my Grandfather a fellow FEPOW and railway survivor.

    Your drawings are a continued reminder of the suffering and depravation suffered by so many which will never be forgotten

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I've informed by a friend that Ronald Searle has died.

    One of two of my favourite cartoonists and it's so sad that the French recognised and appreciated his talents more than we did.
    A knighthood at least is what he deserved.

    William Rudling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Ronald Searle was a true inspiration for myself and many thousands of cartoonists the world over. I shall treasure the hand written letter received offering advice to myself, as i was then, a struggling cartoonist just out of art school. We should now celebrate 'Ronald Searle day' every year to honour a great british artist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    A sad day to hear of Ronald's death. A friend of my parents, Russell Callaghan, was taken prisoner in Singapore and shared the next bedspace for a few weeks at Nee Soon barracks with Ronald.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Seems like he had a good innings despite the antics of his naughty schoolgirls. This country seems to be blessed with a wealth of talent when it comes to Children's literature - long may it continue.
    RIP Mr Searle and my thoughts are with your family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    rest in peace MR SEARLE.great draughtsman,who's pen and ink drawings were second to none.transmitted through the pen the tortured souls who died and endured under the emperor.gave us all a laugh at the films and cartoons of the institution that was st trinians,let us all remember him today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Glorious cartoons....

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I had the joy of working with Ronald for the last 10 years as he did the drawings for my poetry books for children, and every moment was a pleasure. His delicious creativity never failed to enhance my words and characters, and I always knew how lucky I was to work with a creative genius. From his POW work to the present, his lines and insights dazzle.

    BBC: surely he deserves a better send off.


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